DOUBLE BILL #16: Rebecca (1940) and The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

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I like ghost stories. I like how they can be anything, how they can fit into an array of genres without ever losing themselves. I like the possibilities in them and how much you can get out of them. Rebecca (1940) and The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) are certainly perfect examples of this.

In Rebecca (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), a naive young woman (Joan Fontaine) meets and falls in love with Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) while working as a companion to Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates) in Monte Carlo. They marry soon afterwards, and she becomes the second Mrs De Winter, moving into the beautiful, gothic Manderley mansion, where the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs De Winter, who died years before, is still very present…

Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca is, of course, a ghost story without the ghost. Rebecca’s ghost is a psychological, metaphorical one. She lives through the residents of Manderley, who refuse to let her go. And the second Mrs de Winter walks into Rebecca’s world without knowing what awaits her. Without knowing she’s the wannabe. The intruder. The one who should have never dared be Mrs de Winter. Because there’s only one Mrs de Winter and the utterly creepy Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) will never let her forget that. She, in particular, is obsessed and, some say, in love with Rebecca even after all these years and she taunts and tortures our lovely and scared nameless heroine at every chance she gets – the famous scene in Rebecca’s bedroom is probably their greatest moment together. Rebecca’s presence never felt more real, more horrifying, more penetrating than when Mrs Danvers goes through all her possessions in that majestic bedroom, in which the second Mrs de Winter is now trapped…

Contrastingly, in The Ghost and Mrs Muir (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) decides to move out of her controlling in-laws’ place in London and go to the British seaside with her young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood). She rents a rather lovely house in Whitecliff, despite the objections of the rental agent. Turns out, Gull Cottage is haunted by its former owner, sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who makes an appearance almost immediately. Lucy, suprisingly, doesn’t seem to mind it (‘Haunted! How perfectly fascinating!’). They develop a friendship, which then turns into a personal relationship, as well as a professional one: he wants her to write his life story. They start working on a novel together, and when Lucy goes to see a publisher to hand in her manuscript, she meets and falls in love with Miles Fairley (George Sanders), a children’s author. You can see where this is going…

What I love about this film is that it treats its subject seriously. One would probably be tempted to infantilize a story like this, but Mankiewicz doesn’t. All throughout the film, we respect it and we take it seriously. And we root for them to be together. Of course we do. The Ghost and Mrs Muir is a beautiful love story about redemption, lost love and regret without ever being contrived. It’s a magical ghost tale that is as real and genuine as its counterparts.

Rebecca is undoubtedly the darker film of the two and one of the things that makes it so dark is the fact that Rebecca doesn’t appear at all in the film. Not physically anyway. Daniel Gregg, however, makes himself known right away, unashamedly so. A psychological ghost that’s been kept alive by everybody else is a lot more haunting than a real one. In the same way, Manderley is a scary place, where everybody who lives there is still clinging to the memory of a dead woman. A big mansion which nonetheless feels stifling and oppressive. Gull Cottage, on the other hand, hasn’t been lived in for years and it’s a lovely place, and much more pleasant to be in, despite being completely empty – sort of. In fact, Gull Cottage is almost idyllic, not to mention incredibly romantic. Manderley’s dreamlikeness (nightmarish?) gives Rebecca a sort of gothic feel, almost horror-like. Rebecca doesn’t belong in any one genre. It’s a kind of mix between at least four or five genres, and they all blend exceptionally well. The Ghost and Mrs Muir could also be defined like this, although it is more on the romantic drama camp. A ghost love story, certainly. Mostly because Gull Cottage isn’t overpowering, allowing its characters to breathe, unlike Manderley, which overpowers everyone and everything, particularly the second Mrs de Winter. The detail of the lack of a first name is, of course, genius. She is a nameless, helpless, hopeless naive woman who gets overshadowed and downright dominated by everyone else. And it’s not even her fault, which only adds to the horribleness of it all. Lucy Muir, on the other hand, is an independent person, who will not be intimidated by anyone. She’s a self-assured woman, who knows what she wants and how to get it. They say a great story is all about great characters and, as far as ghost tales go, they don’t come much greater than these two.

Both Rebecca and The Ghost and Mrs Muir could very well be near the top of any list of great gothic films (one suspects Rebecca might actually be number one), and rightly so. Their stories are exquisite, the direction is masterful, they look and feel extraordinary (George Barnes won Best Cinematography for Rebecca, while Charles Lang was nominated for The Ghost and Mrs Muir), and, on top of that, they boast two of the greatest scores of all time. Franz Waxman’s haunting score for Rebecca is instantly recognizable, and Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful melody in The Ghost and Mrs Muir is one of the best he’s ever done. And they will both get stuck in your head. Go on, have a listen if you don’t believe me.

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TuesdayThought

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Can I just point out once again how utterly wonderful the Never Gonna Dance number from Swing Time (1936) is? I mean I love the whole film (Pick Yourself Up is my favorite Fred and Ginger number) but Never Gonna Dance is just majestic and beautiful and brilliant, with a dance routine that is everything you’d expect from those two. Apparently Ginger’s feet were bleeding throughout the whole thing. You’d never guess. 

COMEDY GOLD #6: The maracas scene from Some Like It Hot (1959)

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It’s Billy Wilder’s birthday today and I thought I’d pay tribute to the great man in this COMEDY GOLD special by talking about his comedy masterpiece, Some Like It Hot (1959). And since Pride Month is still going strong, this seems rather fitting. We had Marlene in drag a few days ago, so now it’s time for Jack and Tony.

Like everybody else, I adore this film. Every single thing about it. And while I don’t have a favorite scene, I do love the maracas scene, for a number of reasons.

In it, Josephine/Joe (Tony Curtis) climbs in through the window of his and Daphne/Jerry (Jack Lemmon)’s hotel room in Florida, fresh from his date with Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), only to find Jerry lying on the bed, shaking his maracas (!), blissfully happy. The reason for his happiness? His recent engagement to Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). When he tells Joe the big news (‘Who’s the lucky girl?’ ‘I am.’), he immediately tries to talk him out of it. But what I like about this conversation is that Joe mentions the ‘laws and conventions’, and that it’s ‘not been done’, not necessarily because it’s wrong. He’s also primarily worried about his friend and the repercussions of everything that would follow. Jerry’s chilled attitude about it (‘What are you going to do on your honeymoon?!’ ‘We’ve been discussing that. He wants to go to the Riviera but I kind of lean towards Niagara Falls’) is refreshing (albeit comedy-driven), especially for 1959, and a fantastic study on dialogue and punchlines, whose formula has since been emulated countless times. This was, of course, Wilder’s way of appealing to the censors so he could get away with it, only to then throw censorship out of the window with the most iconic closing line in Hollywood history, and a triumph of acceptance and tolerance, not to mention hilariousness.

Apart from everything else, Some Like It Hot is progessive, gender-bending and rule-breaking, all meticulously and masterfully done in the name of comedy. And what a comedy!

Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930)

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Because we’re still celebrating Pride Month here at the Garden, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite LGBT moments in Pre-Code Hollywood: THAT scene with Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930). The one that always comes up. The one that’s been talked about a million times. Morocco‘s greatest claim to fame.

Dietrich received her only Oscar nomination for Morocco (dir. Josef von Sternberg), in which she plays Amy Jolly, a nightclub singer, who falls in love with a Legionnaire, Private Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), whom she meets just as she arrives in Morocco. Problem is, they’re both being pursued by other people – imagine! Later on, they meet again in the nightclub where Amy performs, in what is undoubtedly one of the most iconic LGBT moments in film history. In she comes, wearing a tuxedo and a top hat, smoking a cigarette, in all her Marlene Dietrich glory, looking so excruciatingly sexy, it’s ridiculous. You can’t take your eyes off her, and why would you want to? Cooper’s face as he lays eyes on her says it all, really. And even though the scene (and the film) is meant to be about the two of them, it really isn’t. At all. This is all about Dietrich, with those eyes, and that smirk, and that face, and that suit, singing ‘Quand L’amour Meurt’, and kissing another woman on the lips. Wonderful.

This was Dietrich’s Hollywood debut and what a debut! The film itself is rather average but her performance and this scene particularly elevate it to classic status, rightly so. It’s ground-breaking, it’s daring, it’s fabulous, and it’s deliciously hot. Of course it is, it’s Marlene, for goodness’ sake.

DOUBLE BILL #15: Hell’s Highway (1932) and Ladies They Talk About (1933)

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I will never not love Pre-Code. I am constantly in awe of it and I am always amazed at how much they got away with. And because it’s Pride Month, I thought I’d take a look at two of the many (yes) films that dealt with LGBT issues or showed LGBT characters in one way or another. This wasn’t done in an obvious way back then, so we don’t have a whole lot to go on, but what we do get out of some of these films has rightfully gone down in history. And even though there’s quite a few films and scenes to choose from, I went with these two because I feel they get slightly overlooked.

Hell’s Highway (1932, dir. Rowland Brown) is one of the most brutal and horrifying prison films from Hollywood’s Pre-Code era, if not of all time. Centered around the horrible death of an inmate by a prison guard, Hell’s Highway depicts the horrors of prison life in an honest and gritty way, which at times can be downright uncomfortable to watch. And that’s one of the things I love about it. But most of all, I love the relationships between the characters. The brotherly love between Duke (Richard Dix) and Johnny (Tom Brown), in paticular, is endearing and the film’s greatest asset. And then of course, there’s the prison cook, played by Eddie Hart, a gay man who enjoys some quiet time with the guards in the (regrettably) few scenes he’s in. He’s human, he’s flamboyant, and he’s unapologetic about it. He’s also never ridiculed or made to look like a gimmick. He’s just simply one of them. They’re all in it together, after all.

In Ladies They Talk About (1933, dir. William Keighley and Howard Bretherton), Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) is the decoy in a bank robbery, orchestrated by her and her gang. After getting caught, she confesses her guilt to radio personality and evangelist David Slade (Preston S. Foster), who, despite being in love with her, ends up turning her in. At San Quentin State Prison, her smart-talking, no-nonsense ways get her into trouble right from the off – nothing she can’t handle though. ‘Sister’ Susie (Dorothy Burgess), a David Slade devotee, gets angry when Nan turns off his radio show as soon as she walks in and the two of them begin their on-going feud. Nan strikes up a friendship with Linda (Lillian Roth) right away, and she tells her all about the inmates as well as the prison’s facilities. In the washroom, we’re introduced to the ‘butch’ inmate, sporting a suit and smoking a cigar. ‘Watch out for her, she likes to wrestle’, Linda tells Nan, after which, our lesbian inmate turns around and gives Nan the eye. In a later scene, she’s seen in a montage flexing her arms, much to the admiration of her cellmate (girlfriend?).

What I like about these two films and their respective characters is that, even though they have a relatively short screentime, they did not go unnoticed and they got their point across, even if at times they succumbed to being a stereotype (hey, it was the 1930s), and they undoubtedly made their mark and helped shape LGBT cinema. Hell’s Highway and Ladies They Talk About are just two of them, however, and there is so much LGBT stuff to get through in Pre-Code. I mean, who can forget Marlene Dietrich in that scene from Morocco (1930)? But that’s for another post.

Johnny Guitar (1954): Guilty Pleasure? Nah

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Johnny Guitar (dir. Nicholas Ray), the Casablanca of westerns, is a psychological melodrama that often gets overlooked and unfairly dismissed. It’s not the greatest of westerns by any means but it’s a darn good film nonetheless. And I love how utterly, outrageously fabulous it is. I love Vienna (Joan Crawford), a strong-willed, unapologetic badass, and one of Crawford’s greatest creations; I love her outfits (the Queen of Fabulous has never looked more fabulous!), and Sterling Hayden is always a joy to watch. Not to mention that it’s got some of the best dialogue ever – ‘I searched for you in every man I met’, in particular, is a wonderful line. Is Johnny Guitar a guilty pleasure? Nah, just a pleasure.

COMEDY GOLD #5: Sister Act from The Awful Truth (1937)

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I think Irene Dunne’s performance in The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the greatest, most nuanced comedic performances of all time and while I could have chosen any scene from it (‘I know, my toast is burning’ was a strong contender), I do think the moment when she pretends to be her ex-husband Jerry (Cary Grant)’s sister is a great one. From the moment she walks in, until the moment she is dragged out by Jerry, having weirded out his fiancé’s family, it is pure, crazy fun. I just love the randomness of it all. Like when she suddenly gets up and says ‘Say, wait a minute, don’t anybody leave this room, I’ve lost my purse!’ – it’s such a silly moment! And of course, her hilarious rendition of ‘My Dreams Are Gone With The Wind’ is one of the highlights of the film. Her silly dance and her attempt at doing the hip thrust, which prompts one of the most adorable moments in the film (‘I never could do that!’) are pure comedy gold. She was nominated for an Oscar for this performance and it certainly stands out as one of the absolute greatest in screwball comedy history.

Dynamic Duos Blogathon – Anthony Mann and John Alton

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Anthony Mann and John Alton are one of the most overlooked partnerships in Hollywood history. And one of the greatest. In fact, I love them as a team so much, that when Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub announced their Dynamic Duos blogathon, they were the first ones I thought of. I was hoping a director-cinematographer duo would be allowed and whadda ya know?

Mann and Alton made five films together: T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked By Night (1948) (Mann was uncredited), Reign of Terror (a.k.a. The Black Book) (1949), Border Incident (1949) and Devil’s Doorway (1950).

T-Men is an all-time favorite. The first time I watched it, I was mesmerized. I loved how tense the plot was – two Treasury men go undercover in order to take down a counterfeit ring -, I loved the tight friendship between Dennis (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony (Alfred Ryder) – somebody please come with a bromance name for these two – and I loved the shadows. Which is a given in film noir, but when John Alton is responsible for them, it’s something else. The opening scene is without a doubt one of my favorite moments in the history of cinema. I’m so obsessed with it, I wrote a poem about it (Don’t laugh, it was for a competition). I think it’s one of the coldest, most gasp-out-loud frightening sequences in noir and it’s all about the lighting. Our villain coming out of the shadows only to be perfectly framed by the light as he shoots is a glorious moment. And the whole thing sets the mood perfectly for what I think is probably the most tense noir of all.

In Raw Deal (1948), Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) is getting out of prison with the help of his girlfriend (and the film’s narrator) Pat (Claire Trevor) and he’s ready to go after the man (Raymond Burr) who put him there in the first place. There’s a wonderful sense of increasing tension in Raw Deal, and the last ten minutes of the film are some of the most unbelievably dramatic in noir history, starting with the scene in the boat. Joe standing in the doorframe, with the light from the outside coming through it as he makes plans for the future, and Pat’s barely lit face as she deals with her emotional turmoil is a beautiful contrast and the perfect segway into the fog-soaked shoot-out climax. This is one of Mann-Alton’s best moments, in my opinion.

And if we’re going to talk about shoot-out climaxes, He Walked By Night (1948) has to be right up there. In this seci-documentary noir, LA cops are on the hunt for an astonishingly clever criminal, played by Richard Basehart. Technically, Anthony Mann was uncredited, but he did co-direct it with Alfred L. Werker and that Mann/Alton magic is very much still there. The stark, no-nonsense low-key lighting gives this docu-drama that delicious noir feel and it never goes unnoticed. The film’s exhausting, strikingly dark (literally) ending is one of Alton’s finest moments.

Their fourth film together, Reign of Terror (or The Black Book) (1949) is a mix between historical and noir, with just a touch of B-movie bizarreness (and that’s a compliment). The plot revolves around Robespierre (Richard Basehart), France’s most powerful man and wannabe dictator, and his obsession with the retrieval of the Black Book of Death during the French Revolution. Mann and Alton’s camera work and lighting creates a sense of claustrophobia and tension – Charles (Robert Cummings) and Madelon (Arlene Dahl)’s first encounter is a stand-out moment – that remains throughout the film.

Plot-wise, Border Incident (1949) is rather similar to T-Men: two federal agents, Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy), go undercorver to try and stop the smuggling of Mexican migrant workers across the border to the USA. Alton’s cinematography provides Border Incident with a sense of urgency, claustrophobia and danger in the midst of all that Imperial Valley openness and the contrast between the two highlights the seriousness of the subject matter even more. The film’s iconic quicksand ending is only its second best scene, after the tractor scene, which is probably one of the most horrifying moments in film noir history and if you think Mann is going to spare you the details, think again.

Their sixth and final film together, Devil’s Doorway (1950) follows Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), an Indian who won the Medal of Honor, as he returns home from the Civil War to raise cattle, only to find anything but a hero’s welcome from the people who want to take his land. This is Mann’s first Western and we begin to notice the elements that would forever be associated with his 1950s period, in particular the psychological and emotional depth of the main character, played wonderfully by Robert Taylor. Alton’s dark imagery createst tension and conflict, most notably in the bar confrontation scene, right from its stunning opening shot.

Starting with T-Men and ending with Devil’s Doorway, Mann and Alton created visual symphony and I wish they’d carried on making films together. They are, without a doubt, one of my favorite movie duos ever and one that I go back to every once in a while, to be mesmerized all over again.

DOUBLE BILL #14: Animal Crackers (1930) and Horse Feathers (1932)

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Marx Brothers films are the wackiest things ever put on screen. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I, for one, adore them. And while Animal Crackers (1930) and Horse Feathers (1932) are not as iconic as, say, Duck Soup (1933), they’re still as zany and full of hilarious gags and one-liners.

In Animal Crackers (dir. Victor Heerman), Mrs Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) hosts a welcome home party for the famous explorer Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx), during which a valuable painting goes missing. You can see where this is going…

In Horse Feathers (dir. Norman Z. McLeod), Groucho Marx plays Prof. Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley College, who, influenced by his son Frank (Zeppo Marx), recruits two players to beat Darwin University in the upcoming football game. Misunderstandings ensue (you don’t say…) and he ends up hiring Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx).

Like all Marx Brothers films, Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers are crazy, slightly outdated, and extremely funny. I don’t know about you, but, for me, watching their films consists mostly of trying to write down all the funny one-liners I can, you know, so I can use them in real life – we all do that, right? Animal Crackers boasts perhaps the most famous Marx Brothers line of them all (‘One night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know’), while the ‘I no got a car, I just got a chauffeur’ exchange in Horse Feathers might just be one of the most underrated they’ve ever done.

I’m not sure where these two rank in my personal Marx Brothers top 10, but fortunately I don’t have to make up my mind about that. That’s the beauty of their films. They’re so funny and, in a way, interchangeable, that you can watch them over and over again and just have a good time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to practise my Marx Brothers lines.